Arnaz and Ball Take Over as Tycoons $30 Million Desilu Gamble

from Life magazine, October 6, 1958
Photographed for Life by Leonard McCombe

As the fall entertainment season gets underway, the man for the country to watch is Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III--in short, Desi Arnaz.  It will be impossible, in fact, not to watch Desi.  Every week an average eight hours of TV time will be filmed programs in which Desi has had a hand or from which he makes a profit.  As president of Desilu Productions which he and his wife Lucille Ball own, Desi is actor, director, landlord.

But mostly Desi is a producer in a time when the producer has become of huge importance in TV.  More and more this year TV networks are bowing out as creators of entertainment, are handing the job to independent production outfits.  Way out in front of the independents is Desi Arnaz, a new kind of tycoon.

He is a tycoon to the tune of $30 million gross product a year.  Only a small part will come from the I Love Lucy kind of comedy show that made him and Lucille Ball rich.  The Lucy format will be continued in a few of the 42 new shows Desilu will produce for Westinghouse for $5 million.  Desilu gets $20 million for making six other programs, ranging from Walter Winchell File to This Is Alice, and for providing facilities to other TV producers.  Desilu owns the biggest array of TV film-making facilities in the industry, among them the 14-acre RKO movie lot in Hollywood which Desi surveys [in the picture] above.  He bought RKO late last year--lock, stock and 25 sound stages.

All this is acutely satisfying to the 41-year-old Cuban who has for years been looked on largely as the husband and foil of one of the best comediennes in the business.  The envious in Hollywood like to chuck dead fish at Desi for his contrived comedy and sneer at him as a man who became a mogul through a stage-door marriage.  Desi's vast operation is a big gamble, partly with borrowed money.  But he has great confidence in himself--and his good fortune.  "Sometimes," he says in the accent he uses offstage and on, "I say to myself 'Desi, you are a verry locky Cuban.'"


To become this year's biggest single filler of television time Desi Arnaz needed a place to work and a lot of money to buy it.  The huge RKO establishment in Hollywood was on the block last fall and Desi warmed at once to the idea of owning it partly because he was fired there as an actor 17 years ago.  He persuaded CBS to pay him about $4 million for the rerun rights to the old I Love Lucy TV films, which still have a substantial market in local stations all over the country.  Borrowing one place and another, Desi raised enough more to pay over $6 million for the RKO property.

There he will be engaged chiefly in the 42 new Westinghouse shows, which will include drama, comedies and musicals.  On any day's trek through his back lots and sound stages, Desi gets into all the acts as he redirects scenes, cuts scripts, conducts bands and ranges emotionally from elation to despair at the sight of the product his empire is packaging.

Back in his plush office, where such move greats as David O. Selznick and Dore Schary once sat, Desi deals with the business backaches of his empire.  He does all this with great assurance.  But sometimes the old worry over playing second-fiddle to Lucy's fame shows beneath his brashness.  "Geez, how do you like that?" he howled when he saw a front page newspaper story about his buying a race horse.  "I pay 31,000 bucks for dees horse and who gets her peecture on zee front page--my wife."


Despite the financial interest in their other shows, the Westinghouse Desilu series comes first.  The pair will make their season's first Monday night (CBS-TV, 10 p.m. EDT, Oct. 6), hopping in and out of a Mexican bull ring and listening to the songs of Maurice Chevalier.

There will be only four other new Lucy shows this season.  For Lucille Ball, accustomed to making 30 of the slapstick marvels every year, the reduced work represents a welcome venture into the easy life.  But Desi is not letting down.  "Zees eez," he said, "zee beeg year for teevee"--meaning of course, for Desi.  "Only qualitee attracts zee public," he went on, "so we deal in qualitee.  I never made a show for zee 21 Club or the Romanoff crowd.  I've always got zee guy in Omaha in mind."  Any possible contratdiction between those views did not seem to bother Desi for he would up cheerfully: "All I can do eez go broke and I cannot go any more broke than I was."

[CUT: Fifteen pictures and captions, due to no scanning capability on my part.  If anyone owns this article, and would be willing to scan the pictures (or even just some of them), I'd be very pleased.  If that is possible, e-mail me.]

Cover of Life, October 6, 1958

Vintage Lucy Articles | Contents |